The Follies of the King: Jean Plaidy

★★

The Plantagenet Saga: Book 8

Last summer I had a bit of a run on Jean Plaidy in second-hand bookshops. She seemed to be the great historical novelist whom I hadn’t yet read (with the exception of Madonna of the Seven Hillswhich I read in November 2017). Having furnished myself with the vast majority of her works, I settled down a couple of days ago with The Follies of the King, the lamentable tale of Edward II. It’s the eighth book in her Plantagenet Saga but each seems to be pretty much self-contained and this just happened to be the first my hand landed on. Now I’m worried that maybe I’ve made a mistake; or perhaps this and Madonna of the Seven Hills were just duff choices. Published in 1980, this feels as if it dates from the 1950s instead, full of stilted melodrama, needless repetition and one-dimensional characters. While it jogged memories from my history degree, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, but I fought the good fight and struggled through to the end.

When Edward I dies in 1307, he leaves his work half-done. The Scots, to whom he has been a fearful enemy, have come together under the charismatic leadership of Robert the Bruce and promise to undo Edward’s many recent gains. His barons are powerful men, mindful of the power granted to their class during the reign of Edward’s despotic grandfather John, and unwilling to risk losing it again. Governed by character, they have led where Edward leads because he is a powerful, honourable, impressive and dynamic king. But his death leaves England with a king of a very different type: his son, also called Edward. Edward II is 23 at the time of his father’s death and yet has failed to acquire any of the trappings of adulthood. Flighty, immature and easily swayed, he has since boyhood been in thrall to the dazzling Piers Gaveston, son of a Gascon knight. And, of all the things Edward I’s death might mean to Edward II, the foremost is that the exiled Gaveston can finally come home. With this recall, young Edward sets in motion a series of tragic consequences that will lead to unrest, treason, murder and civil war.

Everyone knows about Edward’s unnatural friendship with Gaveston – and Plaidy, to do her credit, makes it clear that they’re lovers and not just very-good-friends. The barons, among them the powerful Lancaster, hope that the king’s obsession with this parasite will fade when he marries; for marry he must, in order to propagate the family line. And the choice falls on Isabella, daughter of Philip the Fair of France, the most beautiful princess in Europe and also a woman of extraordinary strength and determination. At first she glories in the match: a husband of such physical beauty, and such power, who seems so fond of her! But then she arrives in England and discovers, to her horror, that Edward’s heart lies in the keeping of fickle Gaveston, who cares for little but feathering his own nest and exploiting the enraptured king for all he can. Humiliated and ashamed, Isabella bides her time. Her beauty gains her some popularity with the English people, but she knows that she needs to do more to strengthen her hand. She needs sons. And so begins her careful campaign to coax the king into doing his marital duty, while quietly planning how she might one day revenge herself for his indifference.

This is certainly one of the most colourful episodes of British regal history: the king who is weakened by his fawning dependence on handsome, greedy favourites – first Gaveston, of course, and afterwards Hugh le Despenser. I wish I could remember Marlowe’s play, which I saw in the form of Derek Jarman’s film at university, but which has completely escaped my mind; I’m sure, though, that he told the story with much more grace and poetry. My issues with Plaidy’s novel are primarily with the characterisation. We aren’t allowed to deduce anything about the characters. Everyone has a personality that can be summed up in one word (Edward = weak; Gaveston = indulgent; Isabella = vengeful), and as if this shallow characterisation wasn’t enough, Plaidy hammers home the same points again and again. By the end I felt like squeaking with frustration every time Edward thought sorrowfully of how merry and exciting life had been when dear ‘Perrot’ was alive. I lost track of the times that Isabella was described as ‘more beautiful than ever’, and how she broodingly bided her time until she could make the king pay for humiliating her. It just all became rather tedious. Everything is told; little is shown. And it may be historically accurate – who knows? – but Edward is such a limp, cavilling, pathetic little creature that I couldn’t feel any sympathy for him at all.

For a story which should be full of passion, whether that’s Edward’s for Gaveston or Isabella’s for Mortimer, it feels oddly flat and lifeless. None of the love affairs convince: Isabella and Mortimer, especially, sound like actors awkwardly mouthing lines rather than participants in a bolt-to-the-heart amour. It feels, in fact, like a history book written by a narratively-inclined Victorian maiden aunt (with a naughty streak), rather than a proper historical epic of blood, lust and the death of kings. Plaidy also seems to be fighting a desire to get sidetracked with the tale of the Templars’ Curse on the French Capetians, who feature frequently thanks to their relationship to Isabella. I just found it all rather dull, I’m afraid, and I can’t help wondering whether Plaidy had simply gone off the boil a bit by this stage. If that’s the case, then I’m in trouble, because she continued publishing novels at a fearsome rate right up until her death in 1993.

Please, fellow historical fiction readers, reassure me that others are better? Or am I just missing something? The Follies of the King has rapturous five-star reviews on Amazon so have I simply failed to grasp its genius? Madonna of the Seven Hills didn’t convince me either, but of course that might be because I get especially quarrelsome with novels about the Borgias. But my relationship with Plaidy hasn’t been all disappointment: I’ve also dipped into The Queen’s Favourites (just after seeing the film The Favourite) and Madame Serpent from the Catherine de’ Medici trilogy, both of which I enjoyed much more than this, so hopefully I’ve just chosen a bit of a dud here.

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11 thoughts on “The Follies of the King: Jean Plaidy

  1. whatmeread says:

    She also wrote as Philippa Carr and Victoria Holt as well as others. She was very uneven, I think, and not, perhaps, the best writer in the world. I remember enjoying her Victoria Holt gothics as a teenager but thinking they weren’t very good when I got older.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I now feel reassured that I’m not the only one missing out on the revelations. I’ll carry on with them, though. I’ve got to say this for Plaidy: she’s chosen some really unusual historical periods for her novels, and so I’m likely to learn a lot even if they’re not the most scintillating books…

  2. RT says:

    I absolutely devoured her novels when I was in my early teens but I remember teachers and librarians being pretty scathing about the quality of her writing. However, at that stage I was all about quantity rather than quality, and I am not sure wooden characterisation would have bothered me overmuch if the story galloped along! The books I remember with most pleasure were all written much earlier in her career so you may be right that she had ‘gone off the boil’ (like Mary Stewart did?): the Tudor ones (especially Murder Most Royal and The Sixth Wife), the one about Charles II, the Medici trilogy, and The Goldsmith’s Wife (about Jane Shore). Perhaps it is telling that, despite fond memories, I never feel an impulse to reread her now?

    Funnily enough, a schoolfriend who is now a university Professor of History and successful writer recently got back in touch and reminded me that I was the one who introduced her to Plaidy, which ignited her passion for history and basically started her on her career path – so Plaidy, despite her limitations, must have done something right!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I’m glad you have fond memories of the Catherine de’ Medici books. As I’ve said to Kerstin, below, I think those will be my next step. But I’ll work my way through all the ones I have. After all, if I start something, I will finish it – even if it takes me years!!! Nowadays I suppose readers have so much more choice of historical fiction, and authors tend to go for the sensational and dramatic, so older historical writers seem much stiffer than they would have done at the time. And, as your friend discovered, a good historical novel read at the right time can have crazy effects. Not really a novel, but look at what Ralph Steadman’s “I Leonardo”, discovered at the age of twelve or thirteen, did for me!

      I used to be rather snooty about Philippa Gregory’s Tudor novels (a hangover from when I was a pretentious history student), but I have to admit that, reading Plaidy, I’ve been reminded of exactly why Gregory is so popular: she tells the story of a fascinating period well, with plausible dialogue, intrigue and real passion. I got down off my high horse about her some years back now, but maybe it’s time to actually read some of the novels I was being ‘superior’ about as a horrible undergrad 😉

      • RT says:

        yes – the right time…I think my delight in historicals (and most particularly those set quite early) was firmly fixed before my teens by Sutcliffe, Treece, Trease and Harnett…theirs are novels I do reread with pleasure!

      • The Idle Woman says:

        Ah, funny you mention Treece! I have two of his coming up: Jason and Red Queen, White Queen. If he’s in the same league as the divine Sutcliff, I’m in for a treat!

      • RT says:

        ha – of course you mention 2 I don’t know! My favourites were Viking’s Dawn, The Road to Miklagard and Viking’s Sunset.

  3. Kerstin says:

    I remember trying to read a couple of her books many years ago, as she came highly recommended as an author of historical fiction, but found her style and characters really flat and quite boring (quite an effort considering the exciting times and events she writes about!), which made the books hard going for me. Dorothy Donnett she ain’t! Well done for persevering! I’m afraid I gave up and jever tried to read any others of her books. Might be interested if you happen to find any that are worthwhile 😉

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Well fear not, Kerstin – those were hard-earned pounds I spent on these books, so I’m going to work through them out of stubbornness if nothing else! Watch this space… I think I’ll go back to the Catherine de’ Medici ones next. I remember they were more enjoyable than this – which isn’t to say that they didn’t have their issues, but simply that as a whole they seemed smoother and more engaging. That may have been because I was working on Clouet at the time I started to read them, so naturally the period was one that I immediately gelled with!

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